This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Chappell of BlockApps, Kyra Doolan of Texas HALO Fund, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from venture capital to pharmacy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Chappell, director of energy business development at BlockApps

Siloed data, lack of consistency, and confusing regulations are all challenges blockchain can address, says this expert. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the potential to lead the energy transition — it just needs to make sure it has all the right ingredients. According to John Chappell, a key ingredient is blockchain. He explains in a guest article for InnovationMap.

"Houston has earned its title as the Energy Transition Capital of the world, and now it has an opportunity to be a global leader of technology innovation when it comes to carbon emissions reporting," Chappell writes. "The oil and gas industry has set ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, but the need for trustworthy emissions data to demonstrate progress is growing more apparent — and blockchain may hold the keys to enhanced transparency." Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan, managing director at Texas HALO Fund

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

When venture capitalist and angel investing expert Kyra Doolan started navigating her own fertility journey, her eyes were opened to a huge market opportunity across femtech. As managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, she took these opportunities to her team of investors.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way. Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Empower Pharmacy has opened its new 86,000-square-foot facility features innovative technology for purifying water, automation, and more. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Houston-based Empower Pharmacy has celebrated the grand opening of its new $55 million, 86,000-square-foot facility that includes extensive automation, a top-of-the line cleanroom, and equipment that generates purified water, clean steam, and clean compressed air. The space also features a warehouse capable of storing at least nine months of raw pharmaceutical ingredients to minimize supply chain problems.

"This innovative facility, combined with our more than 500 dedicated employees, enables us to increase our operational capacity, allowing us to prepare thousands of custom prescriptions each day for millions of patients across the country," Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, says in a news release. "We are setting a new standard for compounded medicine, striving to achieve a superior pharmaceutical experience, from order placement to delivery."

The new Empower Pharmacy facility, at 7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., opened earlier this month. Click here to read more.

The new 86,000-square-foot facility features innovative technology for purifying water, automation, and more. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Innovative Houston-based pharmacy debuts new $55M facility

now open

Adding heft to Houston's health care economy, Empower Pharmacy on August 26 publicly debuted what the company bills as North America's most technologically advanced compounding pharmacy.

Highlights of the new $55 million, 86,000-square-foot facility include extensive automation, a top-of-the line cleanroom, and equipment that generates purified water, clean steam, and clean compressed air. The space also features a warehouse capable of storing at least nine months of raw pharmaceutical ingredients to minimize supply chain problems.

Houston-based Empower Pharmacy supplies pharmaceutical products to more than 1 million patients and 2,000 institutions across the country each year.

As described by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drug compounding involves combining, mixing, or altering ingredients to create a medication tailored to the needs of an individual patient. Compounding includes the blending of two or more drugs. Compounded drugs are not FDA-approved.

The new Empower Pharmacy facility, at 7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., opened earlier this month.

"This innovative facility, combined with our more than 500 dedicated employees, enables us to increase our operational capacity, allowing us to prepare thousands of custom prescriptions each day for millions of patients across the country," Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, says in a news release. "We are setting a new standard for compounded medicine, striving to achieve a superior pharmaceutical experience, from order placement to delivery."

Empower Pharmacy has opened its new space — with an additional facility in the works for next year. Photo courtesy of Empower

Next year, Empower Pharmacy plans to open a second facility mirroring the new facility, but this one will operate with a federal 503B license. The license will let Empower Pharmacy make compounding medicines and sell them directly to hospitals, doctor's offices and other health care institutions.

Brunner calls Empower Pharmacy "a leader in pharmacy compounding, pushing the envelope in terms of innovation and technology. With this new state-of-the-art facility, they're not only increasing capacity, but also elevating compliance and safety and — most importantly — the care they provide patients."

In July, Noorian told InnovationMap that he started Empower Pharmacy out of frustration with medication he was getting from a compounding pharmacy in Houston. At the time, he was a hydraulic fracturing field engineer at Schlumberger.

Noorian initially operated his pharmacy from 100 square feet of leased space in a doctor's office.

"Slowly but surely, patients and prescribers around the area were very happy with the level of service and quality that they were receiving from our pharmacy. And we would get more requests through simple word of mouth and reputation," Noorian recalled. "We grew pretty quickly out of that space and then built out a 1,500-square-foot space in a shopping center a couple of years later."

Several more locations and expansions followed, leading to the opening of the 86,000-square-foot facility.

"We've always concentrated on — since the inception of the company — quality, service, and cost," Noorian told InnovationMap. "And we're always working to figure out how to increase quality, how to decrease costs, and how to make it easier and more convenient for our customers to use us."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Robert Kester of Honeywell Rebellion, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industryShaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry

Q&A

When Shaun Noorian encountered what he felt was a poorly ran process, as an engineer, he built something better. Now, he runs one of the nation's largest compounding pharmacies that's at a pivotal time for growth.

Headquartered in Houston, Empower Pharmacy is opening two new facilities locally — one debuts later this year and the other in 2022. Ahead of this milestone for his company, Noorian joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about how he decided to start his company and how he's grown it from a small office to two 85,000-square-foot facilities — as well as how Houston has been a big part of his company's success.

InnovationMap: Why did you decide to form Empower Pharmacy?

Shaun Noorian: I initially started Empower Pharmacy as a patient that was frustrated with the medication that I was receiving from a local compounding pharmacy in Houston.

I'd been working as a hydraulic fracturing field engineer at Schlumberger after graduating from college with a degree in mechanical engineering and was injured after several months on the job. I hemorrhaged three of my lower vertebrae and was put into physical therapy to try and fix my back. One of the doctors that was treating me noticed that I was very skinny for my age. I was probably 25 years old at the time. He decided to test my blood for the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for muscle growth and many other important factors in both men and women. The test determined that I had the testosterone level of an elderly man. The doctors sent me to Baylor College of Medicine for MRI blood tests, and they determined that I had a pituitary disorder and that I couldn't create the hormones responsible to tell my body to create testosterone. They put me on testosterone replacement therapy and it completely changed my life. Being testosterone deficient my entire life, I didn't realize what normal should be.When I was put on the medication, it was like a new lease on life. And I became very interested in the medication that I was taking, and how it worked. I studied everything I could. I was getting my medications from a local compounding pharmacy here in Houston, and I wasn't very satisfied with the quality of the service or the costs. Getting these medications was a very large percentage of my, what I was living off of. I couldn't figure out why this medication was so expensive when it cost just a few cents to make.

IM: How did you turn that passion into a business?

SN: I guess like most engineers, I decided I wanted to build — to make my own pharmacy. And make my own drugs and offer them to patients in a manner that I would want to it be from a patient's perspective when dealing with the compound pharmacy. I leased about 100 square feet in the back of the doctor's office. I pretty much converted one of his exam rooms and started my pharmacy there. I hired a pharmacist and did all the technician duties myself. I wanted to apply the patient experience that I would've wanted.

Slowly but surely, patients and prescribers around the area were very happy with the level of service and quality that they were receiving from our pharmacy. And we would get more requests through simple word of mouth and reputation. We grew pretty quickly out of that space and then built out a 1,500-square-foot space in a shopping center a couple of years later.

Following several more expansions and new locations throughout the years, we're now gearing up to open our new facility (7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., near the intersection of Highway 249 and Beltway 8), which will be the most advanced compounding pharmacy ever built. It has a lot of automation, and utilizes the same processes and equipment that Big Pharma uses to make their drugs. We're trying to better the system and continue to bring automation into the compounding industry so we can continue to scale and set a standard for the rest of the industry.

IM: What sets your business apart from what else is out there?

SN: We're a pharmacy that wants to do everything in house. We want to integrate our supply chain, and that means removing low value middleman from the health care ecosystem and streamline the medical distribution process. This means being the manufacturer, distributor, and regional pharmacy all in one, so we can really control our supply chain and integrate it. And at the same time, we can really be able to control and customize the consumer experience for both our patients and prescribers in a way that we would want. It's been a lot of fun being able to create your own healthcare ecosystem and building software for that your for patients that I'd want to use.

I'm an engineer. It's more fun talking about my equipment than anything else.

If you walk into a Walgreens, it's a simple repackaging operation. You're taking pills from a big bottle and putting them in a smaller bottle. What differentiates us from them and what's unique about this facility is that it's really built the same way as traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing is built using the same exact processes, systems, layout, etc.

We create our own purified water. We create our own clean, dry compressed air. We create our own clean steam that we use in our compounding processes, which are built to CGMP — current good manufacturing practices — specifications. We adopt a lot of those processes into the facility, and we built the facility around those standards that the FDA requires.

IM: You mentioned a new facility — but Empower is actually opening two new facilities within a year of each other. Tell me about those.

SN: Each facility is a mirror of each other — they are both 85,000 square feet. The one that's opening this year is going to be a pharmacy, so it'll just be dealing with patients. The next one is going to be licensed with the FDA and will work with larger institutions, selling medications in bulk for office use to institutions, hospitals, clinics, and prescribers. They will administer those medications to their patients in office. It's our way of being able to integrate that supply chain, so we can be that one-stop shop. So, physicians don't have to go to different vendors to source their medications — we can be an all-encompassing partner and vendor for them to source all their medical needs.

IN: How else are you expanding your business model?

SN: We've always concentrated on — since the inception of the company — quality, service, and cost. And we're always working to figure out how to increase quality, how to decrease costs, and how to make it easier and more convenient for our customers to use us. Some projects that we've been working on that are set to launch in the next few years is building out our own API – application programming interface – so that our telemedicine and other clients that are using electronic versions of health care record software can easily interface with our systems and vice versa.

IM: How has Houston been for you as a home base for Empower?

SN: I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation. It's really just a lot of luck of being in Houston. I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow. Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs. Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth. Also, having two schools of pharmacy in our backyard has also helped.

There's a reason why, as we grow, we always stay in Houston. It doesn't make sense for us to go anywhere else. This is a great city and a great state to do business.

IM: Are you hiring?

Oh, we're always hiring. I think we currently have around 50 positions open and there's everything from pharmacy operations, all the way to manufacturing and marketing to sales, logistics, legal, you name it.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.